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Early Dayton, Flood Recalled in Reminiscence

The following article appeared in four parts in the NCR DAYTON from September 29 to November 10, 1972. The article was written by Mary L. Patterson, mother of James L. Patterson, Assembly K.  For a nine-month period during World War II, Mrs. Patterson operated a grinder for NCR.  She is not related to John H. Patterson, NCR founder, but her father, William B. Patterson, did a great deal of business with NCR.  He owned the Patterson Tool and Supply Company at 123 E. Third Street and sold machinery to the Wright Brothers as well as to NCR.

            The entire reminiscence deals with early Dayton and the flood of 1913.  The first part tells of Christmases past and how it was to live in Dayton early in this century. Part 2 describes the education of a “proper young lady” at the turn of the century. Part 3 describes her preparations for a trip to Europe and the start of the flood. .  Part 4 describes the terror of the situation and some of the role NCR played in the rescue of people from the flood and Dayton’s recovery.


Early Dayton, flood recalled in reminiscence

            When I was a little girl about 4 years old, we lived in Dayton in a house which my father used to say took him 10 years to pay for and 10 minutes to lose. 

            My happiest childhood memories are associated with this old brick house.  Rooms had been added on to the original building and the house had three levels - high, medium, and low.  It rambled up and down steps from one room to another, and down a dark hallway.  It was a wonderful place to play hide-and-seek.

            Our family consisted of my grandparents, my father and my mother, and myself.  Our cook lived in the house and her brother was gardener, houseman, and errand boy.

            On the first floor were three large rooms, a glass-enclosed porch, a pantry big enough for a bedroom, and a long narrow kitchen with one end curtained off for the cook’s dining-sitting room, and a summer kitchen with a gasoline stove and copper wash boiler where the washerwoman did the laundry work in hot weather.

            In winter, she heated her flat irons on the big coal range in the kitchen in an iron frame that held four of her “smoothin’ irons”, as she called them.

            The kitchen sink had a small hand pump for pumping cistern water into the house.  Our bath water was heated in a tank attached to the coal range.  When the fire was low or went out, we bathed in cold water.

            The five bedrooms upstairs were unheated except for the front bedroom which was my grandmother’s room and had a fire place.  The rooms all had washstands with bowls and pitchers and slop jars.  Hot water had to be carried upstairs from the tank on the coal range. 

            On the back of the lot was an old barn and carriage house and a smelly “outhouse”.

            My father was a comfort-loving man and these conditions, reminiscent of early settlers, didn’t last long.  He had a bathroom installed with tub (on four feet) and a washstand with running water, and a “wash down toilet”.  The unwanted accommodations out-of-doors came down at the same time the bathroom went up, and the old barn furnished us with kindling for several years.

            The only other heat we had was from a pot-bellied iron stove in the living room.  One of my earliest memories is of me, seated on my mother’s lap in front of this heater, watching the flames inside the glass window in the stove door.

            After my bedtime bath, my mother gave me a rub-down with goose grease.  The source of this homely unguent was a Jewish neighbor who kept an unlimited supply on hand.  After the rub-down, I wrapped my little nightgown tight around me, warmed myself on all sides, and ran upstairs while the gown was still warm.  All the beds had thick feather mattresses and a plunge into one of these was like taking a dive into a bowl of whipped cream.

            In the course of our upward-striving toward the comforts of life, the iron stove was replaced by a coal-burning furnace with heat piped to all the rooms through floor registers.  My father left for business on his bicycle in fine weather.  He opened his tool and supply store on Third Street near St. Clair at 7 in the morning.  He came home for dinner at noon to stoke the furnace.

            My letter to Santa Claus was sent to the North Pole via the draft in the furnace.  The important document was written on very thin paper.  I followed my father down the dark cellar stairs.  The cellar floor was paved with round cobbles that made walking difficult for small feet.  We walked past the coal bin that held 12 tons of coal, and into the middle cellar where the mighty furnace sat with big pipes running out of it in all directions, like a monstrous centipede.

            My father opened the little round door of the draft, and my letter vanished up the chimney.  I was convinced that it reached its destination, for I always found the things I had asked for on Christmas morning.

            The Christmas tree was kept hidden until I was fast asleep when my parents set it up and went to work trimming it.

            I was awake at 4 a.m. and routed out my parents and grandparents to come and see what wonderful things had happened during the night.

            Which should I look at first?  My stocking hung by the fireplace in Grandma’s room full of mysterious lumps and bulges and overflowing at the top? Or should I run downstairs to look at the wonderful, beautiful Christmas tree? There is stood, a very real piece of Christmas magic, because Santa Claus had brought it and trimmed it himself!

            I was one of a large family circle of uncles, cousins, and aunts.  They always spent Christmas Day at our house, and the invitations read, “from 10 to 10 o’clock”.

            Preparations for the dinner began two months before Christmas.  Grandma and our cook, Janie, made a 20 pound fruit cake and a big kettle of mincemeat.  Both of these things were stored in stone crocks and kept carefully covered to keep out mice.

            My father had a round tabletop made so that everyone of the 17 persons could be comfortably seated.  The tabletop was hinged in the middle.  It could be folded and stored for use year after year.

            Grandma bought two turkeys so there would be plenty of stuffing and white meat for everyone.  Noon dinner was a feast ending up with the most deadly of desserts, mince pie and plum pudding with flaming brandy sauce and a stick of holly in the center of it.

            For afternoon tea, Grandma served cherry ice, tea, and coffee, and fruit cake.  At supper, she served sweetbreads in cream sauce, hot chocolate and more turkey and all the et ceteras that had accompanied the noon meal.

            We always had an entertainment of some kind, living pictures, a playlet for which there was a lot of rehearsing beforehand, and a Mother Goose Christmas. The gifts were put into a big,wooden wash tub with a brown paper cover slit like a pie crust.  The children dressed in Mother Goose costumes and sang appropriate Mother Goose rhymes and jingles.

            The climax to these performances was the breath-taking visit of Santa Claus in person.  My father and Grandpa took turns as Santa on alternate Christmases.  Santa dressed upstairs and slipped down the backstairs and out the kitchen door to ring the door bell at the front door.  It must have been the overwhelming welcome he received that knocked him speechless for I could never coax him to speak a word.  He just bobbed and bowed and distributed gifts from his pack.  His silence was easily explained He came from the North Pole.  Naturally, he couldn’t speak our language.


Travel and proper upbringing quite often difficult in early 1900s


            When I was a child, we had colder winters in Ohio than we have today. We could count on deep snow from Thanksgiving on through April and May. There was always the musical sound of sleighbells. Daytonians who owned fine horses held races on First and Second streets with handsome turnouts and spanking fine teams.

            The streets were dirt roads at the time and as the snow melted and they were passably dry the scissors grinder with a bell on his cart came down the street. If we had had a “meaty” winter, there were knives to grind at our house. He pulled out a stool from under his cart, and settled to his task at our gate. We gave him scissors to grind, too, for our seamstress, Margaret, came every April for three weeks.

            She had breakfast with us, and after breakfast, we turned the dining room into a sewing room. My mother ran the sewing machine, a Wilcox and Gibbs, and Margaret did the cutting and fitting.

            We were a tea drinking family and Grandma knew how to tell fortunes in the tea leaves. Tea was served without straining. If a leaf stayed near the handle of the cup, it meant one thing; if it was on the bottom of the rim, it meant something else.

            Margaret was Irish and superstitious. She held her breath while her fortune was being told. It happened that the tea leaves foretold that she would get a letter from Ireland, and she really did! After that, she listened like a person in a trance. She believed.

            An Italian fruit vendor was the next visitor in our street. His pushcart was piled high with golden bananas. He didn’t have a bell but hawked his wares in a high falsetto: “Ah! Banan! Ten cent doz!

            But the organ grinder with his tiny marmoset was the most exciting of all. His little monkey was dressed in a red coat and blue trousers and wore a little hat trimmed with gold braid. He would climb up to a second story window if he saw the least chance of a penny and he tipped his hat every time he picked up a coin.

            There were no children of my own age in our neighborhood but I didn’t miss them for I had cousins to play with. On the top floor of their house was a ballroom with a maple floor waxed for dancing – and a piano. My two boy cousins taught me the waltz and two-step. Their sister, Bessie, was a young lady with a beaux when I was in the first grade at school.

            A year or two at a “finishing school” was a status symbol for young ladies of my generation. Florence, Italy, was the city most favored by the well-to-do parents of young ladies who needed “finishing” but a three-month tour of Europe’s principal cities, museums and cathedrals was the ne-plus ultra for proper launching upon the social seas.

            Cousin Bessie was booked for the “grand tour” and all the cousins were very excited over it. Bessie’s schooling had touched very casually on European history and to make up for this lack she rushed off to the public library and brought home an armload of books including Green’s History of England in four large volumes. She allowed herself three weeks prior to sailing to bone up on the places she was to visit.

            I made a copy of her itinerary and looked up all the names of places in the World Atlas at my school. Bessie’s tour ended at a place called the Riviera. There was no such place on the map of Europe. I asked my oldest cousin John, “What is the Riviera?”

            After thinking a while he replied, “Oh, it’s a river in France.”

            I searched for a river of that name but in vain.

            Many years later, I set foot upon the Riviera when we made our first trip to Europe and landed at Marseilles.

            A voyage across the Atlantic ocean 60 years ago was an event, not the “once-over-lightly” that it is today. It was the giant stride I had longed to take all my life, the end toward which my education in music and languages had seemed to point.

            The winter of 1912 when I was in my early 20s was spent getting ready for this wonderful adventure.

            I began the study of German when I was eight years old with the fixed intention of traveling in Germany when I grew up. The idea that Germans in Germany might speak English never occurred to me.

            I was 15 years old when the private school I attended was discontinued and the professor who had taught French began teaching in his home. His home was only a few steps from our house through an alley that connected First and Second streets, called “Lover’s Lane.”  It was too wide for an aley and too narrow for a street but it was kept clean and uncluttered with garbage cans.

            I crossed over to his house on First Street and announced that I wanted to take Fench lessons.

            He inquired: “how many lessons a week do you want to take?”
            And I said: “Three, because we are going to Europe and I’m in a hurry to learn the language.”

            I didn’t ask how much he charged but when he told me $1.50 a lesson I had a feeling that my father would turn me down cold and I told the professor so.

            He looked surprised. “Doesn’t your father know that you intend to study French with me?”

            “No,” I said. “I haven’t told him yet.”

            “Then,” he said, putting away his pencil and paper and getting up out of his chair, “we shall not go on with this until you have your father’s consent.”

             And that was that.

            In our family of blue-stocking Presbyterians, French was a subject that I felt must be approached cautiously.


Getting Ready for a Foreign Trip was Quite an Undertaking


            I remember the time when my father had bought tickets to take my mother to see a French play at the old Victoria Theatre.  Mrs. Leslie Carter was in the title role of “Madame du Barry”.

            Grandpa told my father that he wouldn’t think of letting him take Fanny (that was my mother’s name) to see a lewd woman play the part of a king’s mistress! (Leslie Carter was a former Dayton woman who had married a wealthy Chicago man.  Before her marriage, she had been engaged to 11 young men all at one time!)

            Thanks to Grandpa’s prejudiced opinions of the theatre, mother missed a fine performance, for my father sold his tickets for twice what he had given for them, and I felt a greater desire than ever to learn French.

            I had heard it said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.  So I went into a huddle with our cook.  Her name was Victoria Washington and she was raised in a Catholic convent in New Orleans.

            Victoria’s specialty was beef hash browned in lard, a favorite dish of my father’s and one which invariably sent him to bed with a bilious headache.

            After a good dinner with all the dishes he liked best, I brought up the subject nearest to my heart.  If all the other angles failed, I felt sure to win with the best and last.

            I pointed out to my father the advantage of having me as a translator and interpreter on our European tour.  I now spoke German quite fluently, and if French were added to this, we could be independent of Thomas Cook and all his sons.

            It worked.  All but the three lessons a week I’d hoped for.  With only one lesson in a week, at the end of the year Professor Gouffaut pronounced me his “etoile Francaise.”

            The language problem was solved.  Now came the question of how to carry money in seven foreign countries each with a different currency.  My father bought a Letter of Credit on a New York City bank. In addition, he filled a money belt with gold pieces.  He argued that American gold was good anywhere on God’s little footstool! He was wrong.  It turned out that a Munich bank refused his gold because of the high cost of mailing to Berlin for international exchange.

            The next question that arose was how to carry clothing for three adults accustomed to the comforts of travel in the U.S.A.  Advice from friends came in by the bucketsful.

            A tid-bit from a traveler who had been twice around the world was to save used garments that were past redemption and drop them off along the way, like mementoes of better days.  This method would lighten our luggage and avoid laundry bills.  In our case, it wasn’t practical.  Mother had kept us mended up and she disposed of used garments promptly.

            My father had always traveled with wardrobe trunks, those heavy upstanding monsters of bygone days.  The three steamer trunks we bought looked inadequate to him.  He invented a piece of luggage never before seen, which he called a “roll”.  It was a piece of khaki-colored canvas, six feet long by three feet wide, made to order by a tent and awning man.  It had side flaps with pockets for small article like shoes.  The floor was the only place big enough to lay it out and pack it.

            Our three steamer rugs were folded lengthwise and laid down the middle along with bulky garments like raincoats and overcoats.  The side flaps folded over these articles and it was rolled up and held together with shawl straps and a leather handle for carrying it.

            In addition, Mother bought three suitcases of the largest size covered in shiny black sailcloth.  These alone would have sufficed for all our needs, as we discovered later.  Luggage in Europe was weighed in the railroad stations and our was always over the weight allowed per person and had to be paid for accordingly.  After one or two expensive experiences, we traveled by the process of elimination.  Instead of worn-out garments, we dropped off pieces of luggage.

            In order to identify our luggage quickly, my father painted three red letters, “P” four inches high on the ends and sides of the steamer trunks, on the ends and sides of the three black suitcases, and on the canvas “roll”.

            We did our packing in the bedroom that had been my grandmother’s, and , like Noah, when the Ark had been completed, we rested from our labors and watched it rain.

            It was March and rains were not unusual, nor floods either at that time of year, but this rain kept up longer and harder than any we could remember.

            Then on the morning of March 25, the Miami River overflowed its banks and Second Street was turned into a raging torrent.

            The brown, muddy water swirled in waves and whirlpools down from the boulevard along the river and spouted out of “Lover’s Lane” and in no time at all the first floor of our home was filled with water a foot deep.

            My first thought was to try to save my beautiful library.  My father and I waded barefoot in the ice cold water into the room where my books and piano stood.  We took out volumes on the lowest shelves and stacked them on top of the sectional bookcases not dreaming that the water would get any deeper.  The Turkish rugs including the long hall runner were too soaked through and too heavy to lift.

            The bedroom where we had packed was the highest part of the house.  The three of us together lifted the heavy trucks and suitcases onto Grandmother’s king-size bed and heaved the “roll” onto the topmost shelf of the bedroom closet.

            The water continued to rise and climbed the stairs step by step.  I filled the bathtub so we could have drinking water.

            In the midst of tragedy something laughable will sometimes occur.  So now, my father, after his exertions below stairs, undressed and took a refreshing dip in the tub of drinking water.

            The flood rushed past our house with such force that the window shutters on the first floor were lifted off their hinges.  Two of them drifted past our second-story windows.  I helped to haul them in and we laid them across the narrow space which separated the small window on our stair landing from our neighbor’s jutting bay window on their second story.  Mr. Weakley and his son, Ted, helped us to put the shutters in place one above the other.

            By this time, I was standing in water up to my waist on the stair landing.  I wedged myself through the small window and inched my way across the shutters on my belly.  My clothing, heavy with water, made the going doubly hard.  Next to come across the improvised bridge was my mother and last, my father, with 15 feet of water below him.  Ted and his father grabbed our hands and pulled us over the sill into their second story.

            The flood had covered the stair landing window.  If we had taken 10 minutes longer, it would have been impossible to get out of our house alive.  It was completely filled with flood waters.

            The Weakleys outfitted us with dry clothing and Ada, their daughter, loaned me her new corset with the injunction that I was not to bend it.  It had cost $25.  We were staring death in the face and she was concerned with the fate of her corset!



Escape from disastrous Dayton flood leads to romance en route to Europe


            We were marooned for three days and nights in the Weakley home.  The rain continued mercilessly.  It turned bitter cold.  It snowed and it sleeted.  We had no drinking water in all that time.

            Mr. Weakley and his son took turns measuring the water as it rose on their stairs step by step.  We speculated on whether we could escape drowning if the water flooded their second floor, by climbing a ladder into the loft, a low-ceilinged room with no ventilation.

            Across the street, which was a street no longer but a wide expanse of water, stood the Will Ohmer residence.

            Mr. Ohmer opened a window and motioned to Mr. Weakley to do the same.  Mr. Ohmer was excited.  He said: “You know, Weakley, if the wreckage floating down the street gets wedged against your porch pillars and knocks out one of them, it might tear out the whole front of your house!”

            Mr. Weakley’s Irish temper flared.  He slammed the window shut, very red in the face and swore.  “If that ---,--,-,------ can’t think of something encouraging to say, he can keep his blasted mouth shut!”

            Mr. Ohmer’s wife was in a hospital in the East, and his sister-in-law had come to Dayton to take care of their newborn baby girl.  After this harrowing experience and until the dams were built that make future floods impossible, Mr. Ohmer kept a rowboat stocked with provisions on the third floor of his home.

            The water rose an inch and then a half inch, then only a quarter of an inch.  Then it stopped altogether.  Ted and his father came back from measuring it and wiped tears of relief from their faces.

            The days were awful and the nights were hideous.  Our only light was from the red glow in the sky which indicated that downtown Dayton was burning.  The fire shot up into the sky like Northern lights.  It grew brighter and seemed to be coming in our direction.  This possibility added to our terror.

            When the flood was cresting, I witnessed a fearful tragedy.  Some people were huddled on the roof of a little frame house on Lafayette Street.  I looked out a back window and saw the house turn over on its side and the people disappear in the flood.

            This appalling scene so preyed upon my mind that I could not sleep.  One night when I looked out the window, I thought that the house facing ours across the street had been moved off its foundations into the middle of the street.  It was such a perfect illusion that I woke up everybody and told them to come and look what the flood had done to the Gunckel home.

            Ada Weakley’s hands were so limp from fright that when she reached for her shoes she couldn’t pick them up.

            When dawn came, it showed the house standing in its accustomed place surrounded by quiet flood waters.

            The weather moderated so we could keep the windows open.  Men in rowboats began coming past the house, and we learned from them that my father’s store, The Patterson Tool and Supply Company, had burned to the water’s edge.  The big stock of machinery, tools and mill supplies was a total loss.

            It is a numbing experience to lose all of the material things of this world in one blow.  We heard this news just 10 days before our boat was to sail from New York.

            “This is the end of our European trip,” said my father.

            “No such thing, said Mr. Weakley.  “You take your trip, Will Patterson.  Nobody can take that away from you.”

            My father would have canceled our trip without these encouraging words from Mr. Weakley, and if he had done so, I would never have met on shipboard the man whom I married at the close of World War I in Rome, Italy, Count Castracane.

            When it was our turn to be rescued from the Weakley home, we walked down stairs slippery with flood mud.  A man with a rowboat rowed us as far as the boulevard where a carriage picked us up and drove us to the canal.  We rode on the canal in one of the scows John H. Patterson built at the National Cash Register Company factory at the rate of a boat a minute to transport flood sufferers.

            Survivors were required to register their names in two locations, at the NCR factory and at the high school in Dayton View.

            At the NCR factory we were served hot coffee and after we had registered we boarded the first train to leave Dayton over tracks still under water in places.

            We went to Cincinnati where my father bought hip boots and went back to Dayton to try to salvage what he could from the wreck that had been our home.  He shipped our trunks and suitcases down to Mother and me in a friend’s house in Cincinnati.

            We tried to rescue what we could from the dreadful mess.  My father sent our table linens and bed linens to a farm in the country where farm women washed and ironed them.  We bought new trunks and suitcases and new clothing and packed all over again.  Everything in the “roll” on the top shelf of the closet was dry! The water had not reached that high up.

            We left for New York City via Washington D.C. on the Baltimore and Ohio, the only railroad whose tracks were not under water.

            In New York we checked in at the Woodstock on 42nd Street near Broadway until our steamer was ready for passengers to go aboard.  We sailed on the Canada of the French Line in the late afternoon and ate supper after we were put out in the Atlantic Ocean.

            In the dining saloon, a man was playing the zither, the only music we had to cheer our rather diminished appetites.  This poor-spirited instrument made no headway whatsoever against the fog horn which began its dismal groans shortly after we were seated at table.

            It kept up all night long and Mother and I didn’t sleep well.  She complained that we had left one wet spot for another, only this time on a gigantic scale - the whole Atlantic Ocean.

            I had looked forward to seeing Mount Vesuvius when our boat docked at Naples.  But I was taken ill with rheumatic fever before we came into port.  Even if the terrible mountain had been erupting, I was too sick to lift my head high enough to look out the porthole.  My father was not impressed with the ship’s doctor, an oldish Frenchman, so he asked the Italian doctor who sat at the Captain’s table to prescribe for me.

            I had met him at the beginning of the voyage and we had walked and talked together mostly in French, although he spoke English but with a strong accent.  He had traveled around the world as a major surgeon in the Italian Navy.  He was witty, entertaining and a lover of music.

            Our destination was Marseilles, his was Naples and Rome.  He made us promise to look him up at his distaccamento at the end of our tour which included a two month visit to Rome.

            I may truthfully say that the Dayton flood was the means of introducing me to my future husband, the Italian doctor who had treated me.

            The two window shutters, if they could have spoken, would have said: “Trust yourself to us.  Your time has not yet come.”